Friday, 8 January 2010
Reaction: THE END OF TIME, PART ONE
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Euros Lyn, 2009
I hesitate to call this a review, as that implies a certain amount of balance, and it always takes me a while to get to grips with how I feel about new stories, especially a contentious one. Hence, ‘reaction’. Also, I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to deal with the two parts of this story separately, as it’s one of the few times I’ve had massively different feelings for the two halves of a story.
The series finales have always give me a bit of a crisis about the series, as they’re the exact opposite of what I want from Doctor Who – overblown, flippant spectacles. The importance of this story – the end of Tennant’s and Davies’ incumbencies, a regeneration, the introduction of Matt Smith – couldn’t help but make me massively anticipatory, but also anxious (something that the Children in Need scene didn’t do much to dispel).
As the specials, and this finale in particular, have sustained a massive amount of scrutiny, in the run up to Christmas, I couldn’t help but ponder on the things I’d gleaned about the story (despite, I will say, generally trying to avoid spoilers). These were the things I knew (or thought I knew) before the story aired:
• It’s apparently set in the modern day, presumably London (where else?), at Christmas (when else?), and possibly in Camden.
• The Master, obviously, is back, and can shoot electricity. Wilf is the main companion, but Donna, Rose, Sarah Jane, Captain Jack, et al, all have appearances.
• Jessica Hynes is back, but as ‘Verity Newman,’ and so is Midshipman Frame (which is good, as Russell Tovey was the best thing in Voyage of the Damned) – but he will probably die, as he was intended to be exterminated in Journey’s End.
• June Whitfield plays a friend of the Mott-Nobles.
• The black Friar Tuck from the BBC’s Robin Hood is the author of a book about time, and he and his wife [sic] appear to be ‘the evil Obamas’.
• Someone will knock four times (on ‘the Immortality Gate’?).
• Timothy Dalton is ‘the Narrator,’ apparently a Time Lord, and Claire Bloom is, apparently, the Doctor’s mother (how I hope that’s a misunderstanding). There is at least one other Time Lord, who are obviously back in some form.
• Matt Smith will appear, but it’s unclear whether the regeneration itself will be seen.
• The TARDIS may be destroyed and/or replaced.
It’s funny, immediately after broadcast, seeing how misapprehended, or plain erroneous a lot of these things are. It just goes to show how unhelpful it is to pick up all these piecemeal details – which is especially annoying given that I hate spoilerising myself, and would much rather just watch the story with no preconceptions.
Before actually seeing the episodes, it seemed like I knew quite a lot – but that’s nothing when you consider we’re talking about two hours of TV, so all those details were disjointed and inconclusive, with no barring on the effectiveness of the plot, writing, tone, etc. Once you’ve viewed something, it’s easy to forget quite how clueless you were an hour before – all these things could have fitted together in numerous different ways, so ultimately signify nothing. Even after viewing part one, I still couldn’t see how a lot of these elements would fit in.
It’s funny, because by comparison I never know the slightest thing, plot or story arc-wise, about anything else I watch. Admittedly, I’m not a geek for anything else in vaguely the way I am for Doctor Who, but it’s not even that I go out of my way to avoid spoilers - the idea of finding plot details out just isn’t a consideration for anything else. Watching, say, True Blood, Being Human, Twin Peaks, or The Prisoner, I didn’t have the faintest clue of any plot developments, or how it will end, or what characters were returning. Admittedly, some of those are old series so the temptation to find out details isn’t quite so in your face, but considering my love for Doctor Who is in a whole different league, it’s irritating that it’s the only series I go out of my way to spoil for myself.
Though this statement will have the ring of hyperbole, I think the first episode was a lot stronger than any of the preceding specials. Obviously this story will be judged overall on its effectiveness as a regeneration story, but, if you divide the new series into popularist stories (the specials and season finales) and, you know, the good ones, this is the first popularist one I actually genuinely enjoyed.
The elements that seemed disparate beforehand – the Master, some geriatrics, conker-aliens – actually gelled surprisingly effortlessly, and while it has broad humour and appeal, there is also enough depth and gravitas to still be satisfying.
I loathed John Simm’s Master in Last of the Time Lords – but now I feel maybe that was partly because it seemed wrong for the character to be too in control (he works better as a shadier figure). Also, being actually demented worked better than the slightly lazy just being ‘a bit crazy’.
The cliffhanger should have been ridiculous, but was kind of stupid and fun enough to work, rather than being too po-faced (despite being seen before in the Being John Malkovich scene it was lifted from. Isn’t there a Chris Cunningham Aphex Twin video like that, too?). Incidentally, the tiers of Time Lords is all too clearly lifted from the Star Wars prequels’ senate… and may my bones rot for knowing that.
The Time Lords actually feel out of place in modern Doctor Who; they’re doubly outdated, in that with their plummy aristocracy they hark back to an old fashioned notion of Britishness, while the all-powerful, be-robed race of elders is a sci-fi cliché the production team have otherwise avoided. In fact, I love the Time Lords, and that they’ve been treated with such reverence, returning stringently recreated. I wasn’t sure whether the Time Lords were retuning per se (or just a group), but I thought that would seem wrong – undermining the new backstory that had been developed over five years. In retrospect, given Davies’ savviness for exploiting what the audience wants and expects, there’s no way he could have bowed out leaving this grand possibility unfulfilled.
Though there are contrivances – no less massive than usual; Saxon’s followers, Naismith – somehow here these things seemed integrated well enough into the plot not to be offensive. This episode also gained a lot from feeling more connected with the series at large than the previous specials, because of the presence of Wilf and Donna – but not to the extent of everything seeming too insular and cosy, as in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.
The build-up may be contrived, but the change does feel momentous (I suppose partly because it’s as much about the production team as the Doctor). (This being the first departure of a long-running Doctor that I’ve been around for; I don’t count the Seventh because it wasn’t part of his original run.)
Perhaps most shocking of all is that, after the tabula music from The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, which, with its ‘HOO! HAH!’ shouts had a Morricone-like eccentricity, the rattling, jangling Brick-style wasteland music in The End of Time is the second piece of Murray Gold’s music I’ve actually liked, rather than just tolerating (at best). (Although I can’t say I’m overjoyed he’s staying on for Matt Smith’s first season…)
Though I enjoyed part one, in retrospect it’s disappointing there wasn’t really any follow up to ‘the Time Lord Victorious'; only an oblique reference in the café scene. However, considering the somewhat simplistic and contrived approach that characterised a lot of the previous specials/finales, which normally irritate me immensely, this was an unexpectedly controlled episode, which left me desperately hoping part two would be brilliant. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.